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Improving Writing | Discourse Markers: A Teacher’s Guide and Toolkit

Christine Sweeney | Tuesday December 07, 2010

Categories: KS4, AQA GCSE, EDEXCEL GCSE, Edexcel GCSE Generic Skills, Edexcel GCSE Skills Resources, OCR GCSE, WJEC Eduqas GCSE, Trial, Writing, Essays, Persuasive Writing, Teaching Ideas & Skills Development, AQA GCSE Generic Skills, AQA GCSE Skills Resources, OCR GCSE Generic Skills, OCR GCSE Skills Resources, WJEC GCSE Generic Skills, WJEC GCSE Skills Resources

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A ‘discourse marker’ is a word or phrase that helps to link written ideas. These words are generally more formal lexical items that find little use in speech – which is perhaps why they do not always come naturally to students.


Discourse markers can be used, for example, to link ideas that are similar (e.g. the adverbs, also and similarly); and they can be used to link ideas that are dissimilar (e.g. however, alternately).

As such, this useful group of words is an essential part of a student’s writing toolkit.

They work to help create a clear structure by acting as a kind of ‘linguistic signpost’ that contributes to a well-constructed essay or argument. They provide a sense of clarity, coherence, fluency and logic to a piece of writing. 

The discourse markers covered in the resources provided with this ‘toolkit’ are, essentially, for essay writing, but a list of more generally useful discourse markers is also included.

Why discourse markers are an essential teaching tool

For students, clarity and structure do not always come automatically.  Students may be aware of the more basic, commonly used discourse markers in speech, such as then, so, after that, instead of…., but when faced with new forms of writing, extended writing or more formal writing; or when faced with the rigours of an argumentative essay, they often have trouble in ordering and sequencing their ideas fluently.

This is why discourse markers are an essential part of their own linguistic toolkit – and why they figure so highly in mark schemes and examiners’ comments.

Providing students with discourse markers as a ‘toolkit’ will help them in both their organisation of ideas and improve their written expression.  More than this, a knowledge and use of discourse markers actually helps a student see how to write about a topic more clearly.

A straightforward example of how this works is to give a low set KS3 class who are stuck with ‘and’ and ‘then’, discourse markers which sequence simple materials such as: first, secondly, finally; ask them to find ideas to match with each discourse marker before and then write this up.

An extension would be to teach more complex essay structures that require an opinion supported by a clear argument.

By being able to use discourse markers, students will then be able to develop a clearer argumentative, persuasive and essay writing style: Some people think…., so…,  therefore…, Some also believe…....., …on the other hand other people think….., …however (for a rebuttal of the previous idea)...., In conclusion I believe…. . A useful idea is to ask them to create a list of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for an interesting argumentative topic and then to match them with suitable discourse markers.

GCSE students, writing their first comparative essay, might be given a list of ‘comparison’ discourse markers that would work to help them see how to compare. If given and practised before they collected the ideas for their writing, the discourse markers would work to develop hints on what they needed to look for in order to use them.

Likewise, A Level English Literature students given their first essay in which they should include ‘alternative interpretations’, may be given a list of ‘qualifying’ and ‘contrasting’ discourse markers – which would have the effect of not only helping them organise their ideas, but of recognising how to include ‘alternative readings’ in their work.

A way of using discourse markers in the classroom


It can be an excellent idea to keep a display of discourse markers on the walls so that students may refer to them at all times, even when not being explicitly taught to use them.  You could remind them each time they write that they are there.

Studies at KS3 have shown that where a teacher has this sort of information displayed on a wall, later, in an examination, students are seen to glance to the area in the examination room where those posters used to be in their own classroom – as if by looking at a blank wall, the student somehow is helped to recall the information.


Show the students a PowerPoint of the discourse markers you want them to use and model their use before asking them to use them themselves


In addition, laminate a sheet of discourse markers to hand out whenever students write an essay.  This sheet may be part of a toolbox of such sheets and other desktop teaching aids, such as cardboards triangles of writing skills; cards for spelling or reading hints, (not included here), or a the same materials on a cardboard cube, since students are more likely to pick shapes up and look. 

Alternately, create smaller individual cards (enlarged and cut from the toolkit sheet) for each type of discourse marker to laminate and leave on the desk.  It is better to give these items out each time, but they should also be left where students can get them at will.

Younger and less able students will perhaps be better off being given only the discourse markers that they need or could use; differentiated and printed at the recommended size 14 font.


Print the individual specific discourse markers onto slips and then in pairs or singly students cut them up and lay them on the table in the order they are going to use them, match with a summary of the content of each sentence, or paragraph or point on another slip or post-it and paste.  (See above.)


Create a frame – and if you wish, the full essay plan with points listed too - on a flip-chart or the board, perhaps with the help of the class, using the discourse markers.

Toolkit resources with the EnglishEdu guide

1. Wall display sheets. To be photocopied and enlarged.

The background colour of these may be changed, or removed, by going to the ‘Page Layout’ tab and to ‘Page background’.  If you want different page colours for each list, you will need to save and alter each page separately.  The borders may be changed or removed by clicking on ‘Page Border’.  Return to the ‘Home’ tab to alter the font and heading background colours, using the font and paint pot symbols on the ‘Font’ and ‘Paragraph’ tabs. 

2. The same discourse markers on a simple power point, to be adapted if required.

3. The same discourse markers on an A4 sheet laminated (perhaps adapted), as a desk toolkit item.

4. A more complete list of discourse markers for the teacher to select from; making this a wholly adaptable resource.

5. A blank ‘cubes’ (to be enlarged) may be found at: http://www.senteacher.org/wk/3dshape.php Use text boxes (See ‘Insert’ on Tools bar) to place selected discourse markers on each side.

Table cards for students to use a reference material.

To remove or alter colour, highlight each grid box, go the ‘Design’ tab and select ‘shading’.



To add a point:


‘Cause and effect’:






To generalize:


To illustrate:


To concede:


To conclude or summarise:


To compare:


To express attitude:


To contrast, disagree and ‘qualify’:


To emphasise:


Time 1


Time 2